Nain-nain nain–nain–nain! My city’s demonic harbinger of doom can beat up your city’s demonic harbinger of doom!
What? Your city doesn’t have one?
Well, it kinda figures that Detroit does.
The Nain Rouge (French for “Red Dwarf”—but not that Red Dwarf) has become a sort of mascot for the city…a pet, even. But when Detroit’s first white settlers plunked down their little fort, church, and ribbon farms with the highest of hopes, the “Demon of the Strait” was a fright to them.
As far as we know from the lore, the first Frenchie to encounter him was Detroit’s megalomaniac founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac (mentioned in a previous post). On his way to Detroit, ol’ Antoine attended a party in St. Louis, Québec. A mysterious fortune-teller, mistaking this history for a fairy-tale, showed up uninvited and proceeded to tell people’s fortunes. When she got to Cadillac, she rightly guessed that he was on his way to found a city. According to the legend, anyway, she foresaw both the Battle of Bloody Run (Chief Pontiac’s attack in 1763), the War of 1812, and the fact that Detroit would eventually become U.S.: “In years to come, your colony will be the scene of strife and bloodshed, the Indians will be treacherous, the hated English will struggle for its possession, but under a new flag it will reach a height of prosperity which you never in your wildest dreams pictured.”
Her vision, apparently, only went so far as, oh, let’s say 1883, when the book that quotation comes from was published. But that’s not bad, considering this exchange happened in 1701. Cadillac pressed her for personal information: would he leave a large inheritance to his children? As every good fairy-tale hag has ever done, she offered him some foreboding advice: Should he encounter a fuzzy little demon with beady red eyes and terrible breath, he should avoid poking it with a stick. (OK, she just said not to offend the Nain Rouge. Apparently, he didn’t ask, “the what?!?”) Should he offend the creature, he would lose his fortune and reputation, and die penniless. Or sou-less, or centime-less, or whatever currency the French were using in Canada at the time. Cadillac, like every decent tragic hero ever, found this advice entertaining. The prosperity bit he could understand, but this demon talk was hilarious—er, amusant. He amused his wife with a retelling of it later, since she wasn’t at the party. But as downfall legends go, a spouse has to be let in on the secret.
So Cadillac went on to found Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit on the northern bank of the strait between lakes Erie and Huron. One lovely evening, he was out for a stroll with the woman who had been foolish enough to marry him, when a hideous creature appeared in their path. Non, Kwame Kilpatrick wouldn’t arrive for another 300 years, give or take. This was the dreaded Nain Rouge! Standing only a few feet tall, covered in reddish black fur, with glowing red eyes and rotted teeth, it was enough to make Mme. Cadillac gasp and remind her husband not to do anything stupid. At this point in their marriage, sans doute, he did not actually need to impress her, and even if he did, ignoring her advice was likely to have the opposite effect. So for no reason evolutionary psychology could have predicted, M. Cadillac struck the creature with his walking stick, laughing at it and telling it to go away. Which, apparently it did. To scheme perhaps. In the end, Cadillac did lose his reputation and died penniless, with nothing to leave to his would-have-been heirs. But something tells me that might have happened anyway.
The thing is, it’s unclear whether the Nain Rouge causes misfortune or simply turns up to (a) warn about it, or (b) revel in it. A few more sighting stories will illustrate that ambiguity.
Detroit’s first First Couple weren’t the only ones to see the Nain Rouge in those early days. One farmer claimed to have seen him on the roof of his barn, frightening the horses. Impish behavior, oui. But quite unworthy of a harbinger of doom, non?
But as time went on, the Nain Rouge found Detroit to be an excellent location for indulging in whatever his hobby was. In 1763, he was spotted the day before the Battle of the Bloody Run. In 1805, the city burned, and the Nain Rouge was seen dancing in the flames (although other reports say he was simply out for a stroll in the city the day before the fire). During the War of 1812, Gen. William Hull claimed that the Nain Rouge was grinning at him as he surrendered the city to the British in 1813.
In the 20th century, the Nain Rouge made an appearance just before the ’67 Uprising, during which much of the city burned again. (Somehow he seems to have missed the ’43 riots—or no one noticed him, poor fellow.) In 1976, he was spotted by two utility workers who were eating their lunch in their truck. Seeing what they thought was a child near the top of a nearby utility pole, they ran out of the truck and called for the child to come down. He leaped from the very top of the pole to the ground and ran away. Presumably at some point they were able to see that it was, in fact, the Nain Rouge and not some kid we should’ve been sending to the Olympics. The next day there was a severe ice storm. Bad, but hardly worth a Nain Rouge sighting. It’s Michigan, after all. We get ice storms. Nearly every winter.
Later “sightings” are completely dubious (assuming earlier sightings aren’t). In recent decades, one couple claimed they saw the Nain Rouge trying to break into a car downtown one night. The couple were, at the time, leaving a bar. He was supposedly seen by some Wings fans leaving Lafayette Coney in the wee hours of the morning, yelling “Awooo!” and smelling particularly foul. The Wings fans tossed him some change and left, only making the (improbable) connection later. Another person claimed to have seen him outside Dutch Girl Donuts muttering something like “cruller” under his breath. He’s also been reported trying to volunteer for “Angel’s Night” (better known as Devil’s Night), busking at Eastern Market, and one local claimed it was the Nain Rouge who went around tagging TRTL in the ’00s.
These days, the Nain Rouge is better known as the unwelcome guest of dishonor at the annual Marche du Nain Rouge, a huge party celebrating Detroit’s history and possibilities.
So what is this thing, this Nain Rouge? A demon, a cryptid, a figment of imagination?
In older texts, he’s been linked to a mythical creature from Normandy (where Detroit’s first settlers also came from), the lutin. Remember the story of the farmer’s frightened horses? That sort of impish behavior is typical of a lutin, but the lutin also tended to be helpful to French farmers, doing silly but apparently useful things like stirring their food to make it taste better or pinching their children’s toes when they misbehaved. They also braided people’s hair and horses’ manes. The Nain Rouge seems hardly like a lutin to me, although it could be a category French immigrants from Normandy might have used to interpret or recount strange experiences.
Being Catholic, they also might have used the category of demon, especially when (a) dealing with what seemed an evil presence, or (b) trying to evangelize (or “evangelize”) the locals—the Native Americans, mostly Wyandot and Huron in Detroit at the time. Old stories even claim that the Native Americans warned their new friends to beware of the “demon of the strait.” It seems unlikely the Hurons or Wyandots would have used the word “demon” (or “démon“), unless perhaps they were speaking in French and it was the only French equivalent they could find for whatever it was they were trying to describe. Some have proposed that, at least in the Native Americans’ eyes, anything like the Nain Rouge would be a land spirit, and his appearances before tragic events should be appreciated as friendly warnings.
I’m inclined to believe that the Nain Rouge is a melding of these myths, perhaps reflecting the collision of different cultures in the area. I would love, some day, to do the kind of cultural analysis of this that my late academic advisor, Alex García-Rivera, did in his book on St. Martín de Porres. (Seriously, read that book.) At any rate, it has been suggested that the Nain Rouge was a manifestation of racism against the “Red Man,” or Native Americans. The recent “sightings” in which the supposed nain was seen busking, breaking into a car, or mumbling by a Dutch Girl could reinforce that theory—the racism being transferred to African Americans and the homeless poor. It’s hard to tell from anonymous email accounts (see the link to Model D below to read them).
Detroit is not defenseless against its demon, however. Historically, the Nain Rouge was seen being chased by the spirit of early Detroit resident Pierre Livernois, a.k.a. the “Spirit of Detroit.” The statue known as the “Spirit of Detroit,” located in front of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Building (a.k.a. city hall), was never actually named, but, given his popular name, can be identified with Livernois, shining the light of God on a family (meant to represent all human relations). Maybe the Nain Rouge is now warded off by this statue. It was dedicated in 1958, but there wasn’t email back then, and Detroit is rather large; it could be the nain didn’t stumble upon it till much later, when, let’s say, he was so scared he ran up a utility pole.
When Livernois isn’t busy chasing the Red Dwarf, he enjoys rooting for the local sports teams:
Read more about the Nain Rouge: